Social Class Matters — way too much

(Another post on another chapter of the text book Difference Matters.)

Do we or don’t we have social classes in America? Do we or don’t we have class conflict? Or are we truly a classless society? There are some of the questions the author discusses, while contending that we do have social classes and class conflict issues.

Here is the chapter outline:

I delve into these and related issues in this chapter to show how power relationships and ideology affect constructions of social class in the United States. First, I discuss conceptions of class, after which I explain why class matters. Next, I trace the social construction of class in the United States. Then, I explore relationships between class and communication.

Allen, Brenda J. (2010-07-01). Difference Matters: Communicating Social Identity (Page 94). Waveland Pr Inc. Kindle Edition.

The author starts with a story of her growing up in the projects, and uses it as an example of how class affects us whether we are conscious of it or not. She notes:

Geographic location can denote class position. “Housing projects” are class symbols of being poor, and trailer parks often signify poverty. Race also matters, since the projects symbolize people of color (especially blacks), and trailer parks symbolize white people. The familiar saying that the most important aspect of real estate is “location, location, location” implies a class bias. Prices of comparable homes can vary sharply based on neighborhoods. Most major U.S. cities have identifiable communities of wealthy people, as well as “the other side of the tracks” (or the “wrong side”) where poor people reside. Was that true where you grew up?

Allen, Brenda J. (2010-07-01). Difference Matters: Communicating Social Identity (Page 94). Waveland Pr Inc. Kindle Edition.

As with her other topics, the author starts by trying to define. Note this is social class, not class.

The word “class” comes from the Roman classis, a system used to divide the population into groups for taxation purposes. Since Roman days, class consistently has been based on social stratification—the ranking of groups according to various criteria, with higher positions afforded more value, respect, status, and privilege than lower positions. Placement in a class system can occur through ascription, based on conditions at birth such as family background, race, sex, or place of birth, or achievement, as a result of individual effort or merit such as running a profitable business or earning a college degree.

Allen, Brenda J. (2010-07-01). Difference Matters: Communicating Social Identity (Page 95). Waveland Pr Inc. Kindle Edition.

News stories usually talk about class by economics, but social class is not just economics but other subtle variables: Property, power, prestige. As she noted:

French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu elaborated the concept of capital to emphasize ideological conditions plus how people use capital to compete for position and resources. He specified three types of capital: economic capital, which includes financial assets; cultural capital, which encompasses specialized skills and knowledge such as linguistic and cultural competencies, passed down through one’s family or from experiences in social institutions, such as an Ivy League education; and social capital, which consists of networks, or connections among people who can help one another.

Allen, Brenda J. (2010-07-01). Difference Matters: Communicating Social Identity (Page 95). Waveland Pr Inc. Kindle Edition.

Which brings us to a final working definition of social class, followed by some of my reflections:

working definition of social class: “an open (to some degree) stratification system that is associated with a systematically unequal allocation of resources and constraints.” “Resources and constraints” can refer to various types of capital, including financial net worth, savoir-faire or “know-how,” social skills, authority, experience, and networks. Social class is dynamic; we can change our location in the hierarchy, though not always easily.

Allen, Brenda J. (2010-07-01). Difference Matters: Communicating Social Identity (Page 98). Waveland Pr Inc. Kindle Edition.

The part about changing location is a good segue into some of my thoughts about class and race, and how class gets lined up with jobs and employment, and often with race. Gone are the days when someone would have a first job at McDonald’s as a teen, then work higher paying non-professional jobs to get through college until they graduate and start ascending the professional ladder. Today often the first job is the professional job after college, and there is no experience with anything else. Working on a farm, digging ditches or working fast food while going to college breaks down the sense that the jobs are class-conscious and thus below one’s consideration.

I grew up on a dairy farm, got my bachelor’s degree and went to work for a newspaper (fun work, professional status but dirt poor). After that I went into insurance to try to earn more money. Didn’t work out so I spent a transitional year as a hired hand on someone else’s dairy before landing in my current profession. Didn’t make any difference to me, socially or class-wise, but there were a couple of people in the church I was attending who were totally confused — they couldn’t figure out how to relate to me when I went from “professional” to “working-class.”

I have moved up and down and across social statuses. I have interacted with people from all levels. I don’t think the issue is so much there being different “levels”, as when people get locked in their own group, not merely from the social mobility standpoint, but from the ability to interact with people from the other strata as people.

Let me give another thought, another example. People have maids, gardeners, groundskeepers, etc. In the social class model those positions are below the “upper crust” and those people are servants of the upper crust. But there is a different way, an American way. We have maid services, gardening services. These people are independent contractors, business people, self-employed. They provide services but as equals of the “upper crust”, once again breaking the social class system.

In her section on constructing social class in the United States (she always has a section on “constructing” whatever the topic is) the author makes some comments that I feel show a bias opposed to my family history. to wit:

In early stages of the country… Chances for upward mobility were available primarily to certain white men who capitalized on slavery, immigrant labor, tenant farming, sharecropping, farm mortgages, and land grabs from Native Americans, French immigrants, and Mexicans. Consequently, only a few persons accumulated wealth.

Allen, Brenda J. (2010-07-01). Difference Matters: Communicating Social Identity (Page 100). Waveland Pr Inc. Kindle Edition.

This assessment of people accumulating wealth is a denial of generations of my family, on all sides that I have genealogical knowledge about. I come of free yeoman stock, the sort idealized by Thomas Jefferson as the backbone of the country. My ancestors were free farmers, anti-slavery (one branch was northern sympathizers in Civil War Chattanooga), men and women of the land. No one was better than they, and they had no pretensions of being better than others. Many people reading this might look down on such a background, thinking these people illiterate hayseeds, mere working class. But my ancestors were educated, often self-educated, in the same vein as Abraham Lincoln, free and landed proprietors.

But those were more level economic days. Today the accumulation of wealth has caused many to have respect for wealth for wealth’s sake, and create social classes where none would otherwise exist in our governmental system. I say there is nothing wrong with wealth, it is the respect for wealth, and nothing but wealth, that is dangerous in creating social status.

For popular culture studies of social class, I would like to recommend two suggestions.  The first is the 1994 movie “Richie Rich” starring Macaulay Culkin. I recommend it because of the way the Riches don’t let wealth get in the way of interacting with others. It is the servants, and their hired help that see them as a means to elitism. My second suggestion is the book series 1632, started by author Eric Flint. For a real study of the American vs. European sense of class, and how people of all levels interact together, this fictional account of the West Virginia town of Grantville, circa 2000, getting thrown into 1632 Thuringia, and the way American know-how and thought patterns changes that time, and how they are changed by it, says a lot.

And thus I will end this post. I think I didn’t hit half the author’s chapter, but I think it says what I want to say. Let me just pull one more quote from the author’s conclusion:

Organizations of all types—from schools, to factories, to health care facilities, to corporations — continue to be sites where members reproduce dominant perspectives on social class. Consequently, a strong need exists to identify and develop strategies for reducing blatant and subtle forms of classism and its effects.

Allen, Brenda J. (2010-07-01). Difference Matters: Communicating Social Identity (Page 111). Waveland Pr Inc. Kindle Edition.

The author continues to see this as a struggle between groups to reduce the effects of classism. My points, and my cultural examples, say we should remove the sense of class without removing the differences of people. Increase their freedom of interaction, and the issues of exclusion will take care of themselves. Neither suggested solution is easy, but the one constrains people, the other liberates. I vote for liberty.

And thus one more point, before ending. Where is the sense of class removed, without removing the differences? See James 2:1-9 where the church is not doing what it should. The church is where people come together, keeping their differences, but are still ONE PEOPLE. So there is an ideal that works.

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